In 1995, motivated by numerous and widespread threats to human life, Pope John Paul II wrote his most compelling encyclical, The Gospel of Life.
In it, the pope denounced a cultural climate which has a "sinister character." The world is suffering "a grave moral decline" in which not only are people's lives being routinely wiped out but people's consciences are being darkened to the point where it is increasingly difficult for them to distinguish good from evil. "Choices once unanimously considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially acceptable," the pope wrote (no. 4).
Threats to human life are coming in a variety of forms -- war, poverty, environmental devastation, suicide, capital punishment, euthanasia and contraception. But the greatest threat to life comes in the form of killing unborn babies in the womb -- abortion. In Canada, every year 120,000 children are slain before they can utter their first cry; in the U.S., the death toll is more than one million babies a year.
Nor is the slaughter confined to the Western world. It is a global phenomena of unprecedented proportions with a death toll which dwarfs that of any previous war. It is a silent slaughter, not only because the unborn are so innocent that they cannot even utter a cry, but also because the world's media turns its back on this form of killing.
The media rightly report on the bombing of Iraq, the deadly antics of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the steady stream of convicted murderers to the executioner. But abortion is commonplace, undramatic and widely accepted as "a woman's right."
The pope has tried to reawaken consciences to the reality of the unconscionable evil that is being so widely accepted. He said we need to make concerted efforts to prevent "a setback of unforeseeable consequences for civilization" (no. 91).
There is no doubt abortion has already had major consequences for society. This side of eternity we will never know what might have been accomplished by those whose lives were so prematurely snuffed out. Nor will we know the extent to which the lives of the parents of these slain unborn children have been diminished because of their refusal to accept new life.
Each child, each person, is a unique opportunity for love which will never pass through this world again. By his or her life itself, each child calls us to love, to become more human. And each child can grow into a person who offers love to others. This love can never be weighed or measured. But each giver and receiver of love makes this world a more human place, a place that is less cruel, less focused on the fulfilment of one's own needs.
In his encyclical the pope offered Mary the Mother of God as "the incomparable model of how life should be welcomed and cared for" (no. 102).
Mary's love for her son was not one without challenges. She was confused by God's offer for her to bear his Son when she wasn't even married. When the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple, a prophet told her, "a sword will pierce your own soul" (Luke 2:35). And standing at the foot of the cross, she suffered the greatest agony a mother can undergo -- witnessing the death of her child.
And yet Mary continues to be the great force for life. At Guadalupe in Mexico, she appeared as a pregnant mother clad in Aztec garb to the peasant Juan Diego in 1531, only a few years after Europeans had first landed in America. Mary's intercession brought an end to human sacrifice among the Aztecs and nine million of them were converted to Christianity in a few short years.
Today Our Lady of Guadalupe is a patron in the struggle to end abortion, today's form of human sacrifice. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has prevented abortions and brought healings and conversions wherever it has been displayed.
"I now consecrate myself daily to the holy Virgin Mother of Guadalupe and I ask her to make me an instrument to end abortion by melting hearts," said one woman who had had four abortions. "She is the shield that will protect unborn children and their mothers."
In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul tells of Mary, Joseph and Jesus' flight into Egypt away from Herod who wanted to kill Jesus. "Mary," he said, "helps the Church to realize that life is always at the centre of a great struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness" (no. 104).
Life is not ours to dispose of; it is a great gift from God. We are the stewards of this gift. We are obliged to gratefully accept this gift -- the gift of our own lives and the gift of the lives of other people for whom we are responsible. The taking of a human life always shatters the bonds of solidarity with others. It creates a rupture within society itself. But reverence and respect for human life helps to build up society and to make it more whole, peaceful and just.
Mary can be our guide in struggling against the darkness that seeks to stamp out life. She has been there. She has seen the devastation. She is the best one to help us nurture the great treasure which is ours.
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